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Don’t Bring Your Business Card to Borscht

I missed my 6am flight on the last day of the Borscht Film Festival. I blame Moonlight. And Miami.

It had been an insanely inspiring weekend of art, film and new friendships at the festival’s 10th year down in Miami. Borscht ran February 22-26, encompassing live performances, film screenings, art installations, parties on islands and even a viking funeral — which I, regretfully, missed. I’d been hearing about Borscht for years through a number of my friends in the film community and via co-founders Jillian Mayer and Lucas Levya’s visionary films/art. Over and over, I was told the fest was a sort of refuge for other artists trying to find their voice, their collaborators and most importantly, for people wanting to just have a weekend letting loose with open-minded people. Sold — I was feeling artistically discouraged and the NYC winters made me want to curl up in a ball and never make work again. Ever. It was time.

After a wild and inspiring weekend, the festival culminated on Sunday night with the outdoor screening of the Academy Awards at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City, where much of Moonlight was filmed. “People knew Tarell [Alvin McCraney] in the city,” Leyva explained of the event. “Everyone knows somebody that worked on the movie. It really was a community thing.” It was Leyva and his long time collaborator and co-founder of Borscht Corp, Andrew Hevia, that first introduced McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, to Barry Jenkins.

Witnessing Moonlight take home the Academy Award let everyone at the festival live in the clouds for a night. Dreams do come true. The vivacity of the experience, the beautiful exhaustion from celebrating with all our souls all weekend long, made me sleep through the flight — missed it with no regrets — even the huge flight change fee (maybe some regrets). I woke up, wondering how I could possibly encompass the festival into an article. The more I marinated on it, that day after the fest, stranded in Miami, I realized how applicable this lifestyle was — this way of art making and these artists. How could we all take back a bit of Miami, of Borscht, a small seashell in our palm?

In honor of Borscht Diez, their 10th anniversary, here are 10 lessons Borscht provided on making bold work with supportive people. As Mayer said, “trusted peers” are one of the keys to making the work you want to make. For anyone who’s trying to get projects off the ground, trying to stay confident, motivated, find their community — and their voice — here are ways to do so, no matter where you are

  1. Find your community

Not everyone who wants to be in film should live in NYC or LA. Yes, these cities are entertainment and cultural hubs where one can show up with empty pockets and big dreams and have a very slim chance of “making it.” For artists who are emerging in their careers and still developing their voices, these cities can be ruthless. Levya, like a lot of us, had plans to move to New York after school, but “for someone coming from a middle class background, there were a lot of hurdles, logistically, existing in that city.” He witnessed other artists he admired getting stifled by the need to make rent. Tarell Alvin McCraney was a mentor of his and he encouraged Leyva to consider Miami as a place of creation. “So many of the stories I wanted to tell, I realized, came from this place,” he explains. After getting rejected from every film school he applied to, he stayed a semester in Miami and interned at a theater company. The owner encouraged him to screen some films and use the theatre for free: “He was Russian and he gave me borscht. I had never had it before. It’s a name we thought we’d change later.”

Hevia and Leyva decided that instead of going to LA they would build “up an infrastructure that better suited what” they believed in. And so, Borscht was born. Mayer began her involvement in 2009 after submitting for an open call for entry for short film works. Brett Potter, who now serves as chairman of the board, was living in NYC, and met Mayer and Leyva at Sundance, where he admired their work. He laughs, “I really wanted to become their friend and bribed them with a party list.” Soon after, Borscht gave Dean Marcial and Potter a grant to make their film Sea Devil and they’ve worked on projects ever since. We all “have a diverse set of skills and understanding,” Leyva said, illustrating how their collaborative team switches roles on projects acting as producers, directors and vice versa.

Potter recently left NYC for Miami and opened up about the choice. It’s “about the community and the pace, the space, the friends. After living in Brooklyn for nine and a half years and the crushing pressure of what that city does, something I’ve always come down to Miami for is a rescue from that. This really amazing group of people doesn’t have the built in pretension or neurosis of people that live in New York. It’s the most supportive, creative environment I’ve ever been a part of.” He adds, “And there’s grant money available — how could you beat that?”

Mayer explains her journey to embracing the Miami community. “I have an art practice here. I look at Miami as a studio. It’s almost my art residency time, my session. It’s very easy for me to go away and brainstorm and then when I’m ready, appear with work.”

The city of Miami is still catching up, though, Leyva and Mayer dealing with venues that fell through, water police and a number of other mishaps. “Slowly, as we pull off more and more of these events…it ignites the imagination of other people to do things. The audiences and creators are going to start demanding more of our institutions and our venues.”

Miami may not be for everyone, but the supportive vibe, the less aggressive artistic community and the ability to build your own structure for making work, is something applicable for any city that might be a potential home. Is there a supportive community? Do you have the time to make work and not just hustle for rent? Are there other creators in the city that inspire you? Every artist’s voice is unique and so of course each of their chosen communities should be as well.

A community and a city also breeds the type of stories coming out of it. When talking about what he learned from the triumph of Moonlight, Levya explained, “The thing we do take from it is that Miami stories, if given the opportunity, the right amount of care and support, can speak to the world and succeed at the highest level.”

It makes one wonder — where is your city, your community, that will foster the stories most true to you?

  1. Accept that time is subjective

There was something slightly existential about the way time presented itself down at Borscht. Panels ran 30 minutes behind. Parties didn’t kick off until maybe an hour after our itinerary said they would. If you needed to grab a Cuban coffee before you went to a screening, you didn’t have to worry about missing the first 10 minutes of a movie, or worse, not getting in at all. “Things are more casual, more social, less Swiss, less German,” Mayer explains. “There’s a flexibility in time.” Film festivals lose their charm to schedules all the time. For anyone who has attended Sundance, and of late, SXSW, you know that lining up an hour ahead of time is a must and you spend that hour tweeting instead of seeing a shorts block or swinging by a happy hour. Time is precious. At Borscht, time was almost disposable. It was magnificent. It created a leisure and a relaxation all around — in conversations, in afternoons on the beach, in sitting in the theater traveling down cinema rabbit holes with new acquaintances.

Leyva explains the concept of “Miami Time,” a phrase thrown around a lot of the weekend. Why hasn’t the movie started? Miami Time. You think we have time for a sit down, lobster dinner before the vogue ball? Miami Time. “Things flow into one another. A lot of that seeps into Caribbean culture which influences Miami culture.” Plus, he adds, “Our industry is leisure.” As much as one may think the fluidity of the festival and its linear structure  — yes, there was only ONE thing to do at a time (no choices!) — was happenstance, it wasn’t. “It was about giving yourself over to the experience. We put a lot of thought into how the days are structured.”

Mayer agrees: “It’s designed the way a chef will design your meal from start to finish with experiences and ingredients. It’s the same in the way that a film programmer plays with the intensity and themes of the program. We try and look at the day like that and the overall ebb and flow of the festival.” This precision, and ability to still throw away a regimented schedule, made for wonderful bonding experiences. Building friendships, like making art, takes time.

On top of this lingers the existential question — when is my time?

Barry Jenkins didn’t make a movie for eight years before he made Moonlight. Projects fell through, disappointments happened like they do to us all. Whether waiting on a screening to start in at the Miami Olympia Theater or for your film to finally get made, Borscht assured — the time, your time, will come.

Chill.

  1. Support other artists

Dean Marcial was screening a WIP of his new short film Manila Death Squad on Friday before another feature. It was a big moment for him, not only because it can be terrifying to show a film to an audience on a large screen for the first time, but also because it was a room full of his friends — people he respected. A few minutes into the film, it was clear something was wrong with the sound. They turned the film off. He was incredibly bummed. A day later, everyone gathered for the Main Event, where Borscht would screen a block of short films that they had either commissioned or been a part of in some way. Upon opening the program, Dean’s film was printed in the lineup. “Jillian immediately put me in touch with Sergio, the print coordinator, and we hammered out the source of the error. The surround sound was accidentally mixed down to stereo, cutting out the entire dialogue channel,” said Marcial, describing what went down. “By the time I talked to Lucas he already spoke to Sergio about playing my movie on the main night and I was over the moon.” It was a specific example of just how supportive Borscht was to their filmmakers — their friends. Not only did they decide to screen Marcial’s film, but reprinted hundreds of programs in time to do so. “Making Sea Devil in Miami changed my life. Jillian, Lucas, and Jon Kane were some of the first people who believed and supported me artistically — they’re my sisters-and-bros-in-arms. To showcase Manila Death Squad here, in front of people I love after all these years is, for lack of better words, ‘The Feels,’” says Marcial. Dan Brawley, who heads up Cucalorus Film Festival, also known for its experimental nature and eclectic programming slate, was down at Borscht after attending for many years. “I think you can sense that Borscht does a good job of supporting people that we know are successful with one hand, and then taking risks and raising up the voices of people who are not as well known with the other. That, in turn, really pushes the more successful filmmakers to take greater risks.”

Many festivals support the filmmakers they program, but Borscht felt extra personal, a specific attention to each person’s needs. Perhaps because Mayer and Leyva are creators themselves, they understand the foxholes that can arise when making work. They took risks to lift people up and out. If you support your fellow “sisters-and-bros-in-arms”, as Marcial says, they’ll be there one day to support you. Pay it forward, backwards and sideways, right? 

  1. Don’t make it unless you know you’re the only one who could

Leyva and Mayer discussed how they choose their commissioned works when people apply to grants. “Make us something only you could make,” says Mayer. Many of the shorts screened were incredibly unique and did feel shaped by this one idea. I, personally, found this concept much more practical than the usual find your voice! By looking at a story in this way — who could make this better than me — one is able to find their voice. Dylan Redford’s short My Trip to Miami screened as a part of the Main Event. Post break-up, he decides to prove to himself he can do things alone and plans a trip to Miami to hit up the top 100 tourist destinations. An editor with a handful of GoPro cameras laying around, he straps them to his head and body and documents his trip. Oh, and there’s a selfie stick, too. More than anything, the piece felt so unique. The tone was hilarious while also possessing a dose of gravitas — what has our culture become, what has Miami become? “Stories feeling personal is very important to me,” explains Redford. “My Trip to Miami explores and unpacks my anxieties related to freelance culture, travel content, branded content, and the expectation and performance of white male ‘independence’ — neoliberalism basically — how it distorts and mediates the way I experience place and relationships. Miami felt like the perfect place to explore these issues. I’m so grateful to the Borscht team, for taking a risk on me (and everyone they support), for believing in my insane vision, and pushing me to try something new.” He is based out of Minneapolis, another creator choosing to forgo the NYC or LA madness: “ I moved to Minneapolis so I could continue to prioritize making stuff. The lower living costs combined with excellent grant opportunities makes Minneapolis, in my mind, a great place to have a creative practice.”

“Everyone had a lot of problems last year,” Mayer laughs. Her short Kaiju Bunraku, in collaboration with Leyva that played Sundance this year, and screened at the Main Event, was about their breakup. It was evident that not only was Borscht asking their creators to bring them a specific vision, but also one that people connected with on honest, personal levels. Potter clarifies that no one is asking “you to wrestle with all your deepest, darkest personal problems in every film you do, but Kaiju Bunraku is a good example of a breakup film. Postmode, is wrestling with the implications of technology and identity.” Mayer and Leyva are a “Pied Piper for everyone else to follow.”

This idea of making work only you could make was also a through line to the fest itself. “The entire experience has an authenticity to it. I never felt like I accidentally got stuck at an event that was meant for someone else,” says Mayer.

5. Fail

“Being away from the ‘real industry’ gives us the safe place to fail constantly,” explains Leyva. “We’ve made so much bad work for so long but it didn’t really affect our careers because we’re down here in the swamp. No one heard about it and it was a place where everyone could grow into their voices without these pressures. Failure is part of any process, but because it’s not measured by the same capitalist standards, it’s not seen as much of a failure, I think, down here. We make bad films all the time. We lost some grant money on it, people learn from it, and people grew as an artist and that makes it worth it,” he adds.

Xander Robin, whose directorial debut Are We Not Cats is perhaps the best hidden gem on the festival circuit this year, premiered his short Lance Lizardi at Borscht’s Main Event. The short follows Lance, played by Robin, a young man on a mission to be the top lizard collector in South Florida, perhaps while turning into one himself. It was refreshing to see Robin, who’s already ventured into feature land, experimenting with this project — it’s definitely imprinted with his knack for the fine line between animal and human. “Borscht encourages trying out new ways of how films are made and shown — not everything needs to be shiny, and often that puts less pressure on the product, thereby increasing the chances of it actually being good,” says Robin. “That being said, Borscht is always prepared to commodify a worthy product, like all good Miami capitalists.” He had a good point. It’s not that Borscht seeks out failure, but instead embraces it when it does happen as a learning experience.

“You can’t prepare for the speed of a set,” explains Leyva. “For first time filmmakers, you will have questions flying at you as a director,” and the pressure to be right. Leyva gives the advice to grantees to “just say whatever you feel in that moment. The culmination of these mistakes you make, that’s going to be your style and who you really are expressing yourself.”

“There’s no real answer. Just say whatever gets people to walk away from you,” Mayer says only half-kidding. “If you fuck up enough in the same way, people will mistake it for your style, and then you’ll have a style.”

Brawley agrees that this also applies to running a festival or screening your film at one. “There’s also something special about being at an event that’s a real failure. That play that melts down hours before curtains or that performance that just goes off the rails and you feel bad just for being there. Those moments are more lasting than the Hallmark spectacles where we all talk about how great we are. I sort of secretly hope that every event has a little disaster in it somewhere.”

6. If you think something might not work, do it

After bumming around downtown Miami for a few hours, grabbing sushi from the only restaurant open on a Sunday, everyone was ushered into the vault at the Alfred I. Dupont Bank. We filled out a would-you-rather questionnaire about farts, poop and gross bodily functions. No one asked questions, but instead took the free tequila sunrises and walked into the soon to be taped Shart Tank Live!

“It originally served a logistical purpose,” because everyone was nearby and would be screening the Main Event across the street later that night. “We wanted to get a bunch of people in a room and let chaos reign,” explains Potter. “We thought it would be really cool to create something the audience is a part of,” says Mayer.

The show was a parody of the TV show Shark Tank and had contestants pitch their ideas to a panel of judges. If their idea was rejected, they were sent to a room (somewhere nearby?) where a man was “shitting” on a toilet. The performance culminated in final contestants going to head to head with a poop shoot of sorts. Yes, a “piece of shit” was placed in a clear pipe. They put their mouths on either end and whoever could blow the shit in the other person’s mouth won. Yes, you read that right. The finale was a kid getting water-gunned down with shit. It smelled like death. We all ran out of the vault, thinking what the fuck just happened?!? It was a stink bomb and a brownie, for all those wondering. “There’s nothing more bonding than everyone smelling a really bad fart together,” jokes Leyva.

Borscht had no idea if this would work. Would it be totally disgusting? Not funny? Would the stink bombs indeed bond people? It was a pretty big production for such an unknown outcome.

But people did end up musing over the madness for the rest of the night. “I guess I admire Borscht some for jerking off so much,” says Brawley. “They’re not ashamed, this shit feels good. Could they shave out some of the really self-indulgent nonsense? Yes. Would they risk shaving off the good bits? They might.” Sure, some of the stuff at the festival felt crazy, a bit masturbatory and pointless — why waste the audience’s time if it might be a disaster? Brawley adds,“Too much jerking off gets tiresome and can cause a rash, so there’s a bit of that at Borscht — the Borscht rash.”

There’s something to say for experiments, though, and for trying something without knowing if it’ll work. Borscht isn’t a people pleaser and never pretends to be one. It takes risks, which sometimes work and sometimes don’t.

If you never try, how will you ever know?

7. Know there’s no “right” way to make a film or be a filmmaker

“We’re looking for storytellers,” says Leyva. They have worked with many grantees who have never made a film before and didn’t have access. Leyva and Mayer recognized that people develop their voices in different ways and show they can hustle in other areas of their life. Many times, Borscht was attracted to people who just had access and a story they wanted to tell. Getting grants can be difficult, especially because it requires artists to express themselves in a certain way. “English being everyone’s second language — it’s already an intrinsic barrier,” says Mayer about many aspiring Miami artists. “My application was so fucked up,” she explains of her first one with Borscht. She’s dyslexic. She admits that because of this, her application may have been overlooked by other organizations.

For these artists who might not fit into the cookie-cutter ways expectations of a filmmaker, Borscht assembles a supportive crew, one that listens. Bringing an old geezer on set as your gaffer, however experienced, may not have the empathy to deal with a new artist, especially if they’re used to traditional ways a set is run.

Leyva used Julian Yuri Rodriguez (C#ckfight) as an example. Rodriguez has been a continual collaborator with Borscht and his bizarre (and frankly, fucked up) feature 23 Films About A Man Named Arthur screened at the fest. Julian looks like a maniac. He speaks like a maniac. He didn’t come from film but he has all these stories and experiences that are unique.”

Getting funding for a film and then making it happen is near impossible, even for those who do know how to throw down a baller grant application and run a set in their sleep. For other artists, who are either not educated in the medium, or struggle to fit into the mold of studio, institution or other potential collaborators’, expectations — it can be discouraging. Borscht, though, recognizes that to bring unique stories into the world, we need unique voices. Forget fitting into a mold. There’s no right way — or wrong.

  1. You don’t have to be commercial (aka no one has to like your shit)

“Masturbatory art, most of the time, is equally as valuable: to express or bear witness to how someone sees itself in the world is an incredibly powerful experience,” explains Redford when asked about his thoughts on combating masturbatory work. One could easily attend Borscht and say everyone is up their own asses (I’m cussing more as this article goes on — I realize). Some of the work feels alienating, some of it says nothing other than I was amused with making this at the time and there were a few moments where one might feel frustrated: why are you wasting my time? This is what, sadly, we’ve come to label “not commercial.” But was it trying to be in the first place?

“Not everyone’s voice is commercial or has an interest in doing that,” said Leyva. Mayer always asks their grantees, “What are your goals for this thing?” Borscht handles things accordingly, whether it’s to get the filmmaker an agent or to play festivals. Exploration is also always just as valid of a goal. “For me, I’m constantly having to interrogate my subjectivity: what are the larger social conditions (race, class, gender etc.) that compose, limit, warp, my memories, fantasies, and my general world view?” Redford explores these questions when making that piece of exploratory work that could potentially alienate one’s audience. “If you’re going get personal, this process feels absolutely necessary. Artists are not self-contained mussels. We are in this shit, we are implicated. At the end of the day, trying to access the conditions and forces that mediate all of our subjectivities is a great way to widen and ground the stakes and applicability one’s ‘masturbatory’ art.”

Many times an artist needs to experiment, to indeed make work for themselves, in order to find what they’re looking for — whether the story, the catharsis or the voice. If you don’t appreciate this process, I wouldn’t encourage you to attend Borscht.

But Borscht doesn’t combat commercialism entirely, they’re just careful when venturing into that land. They now have partnerships with Cinereach and even Alex Garcia at WME, who is in the finance department, helped them finance their next project. He’s from Miami. There is a pipeline to larger opportunities, but never one that Borscht uses as the focus of their festival, or the pinnacle of their work.

Leyva recalls the agent meetings that started piling up after him and Mayer’s first short at Sundance: “Most of them hadn’t even seen the fucking things.” It was easy to think, “We’re not good enough” and that the meetings were coming in purely because of the Sundance stamp of approval, and not the actual work. But Leyva realized that it wasn’t a failure, just not the right path for them at the time.

There’s a protection from commercialism at Borscht that’s not present at other festivals. Dan Brawley explains, “The film festival industry is now in its third decade — by my count — and I see a lot of festivals slouching into their brands. They find a formula that works and then stick with it because there’s more and more at stake — bigger budgets and people’s salaries. So then you drop down in Miami for Borscht and you can tell that they passionately put the artist first.”

Yes, there’s risk in doing that — especially when a festival is trying to survive. It’s the same for an artist, too, to not give into the pressures to be commercial. After all, commercial can also be financially beneficial. But at Borscht, there was a confidence in the air — build it and they will come. And “it” is your art — art focused on one’s truth and nothing else.

  1. Disarm

“When everyone disarms, when nobody has their fangs out, you end up getting more done than you ever would at a more structured, rigorous festival. A lot of my main, close friends in the industry I met through Borscht or somehow the festival,” Potter said.

Borscht is picky with who they invite to the festival. “We don’t want to fuck up the vibe,” explains Leyva. “It’s curated,” adds Mayer. “We don’t want to creep any our creatives out especially since a lot of them are new to this. We also don’t want them to get duped on some weird, fake opportunity.” If you’ve been in the art of film scene for a few years, you’ve probably been screwed. This is a combination of naivete and the awful tendencies of human beings, especially those in the entertainment “biz.” Mayer and Leyva are keen on making the festival a safe space.

“I’m exhausted from calculating.” Mayer says about her time at Sundance. Other festivals urge you to schmooze, to promote your work, to build “relationships” and the enjoyment, the connectivity gets lost. “When’s the last time an adult got to go somewhere where they could forget who they were for a little bit, without them being wasted or something? It’s really important to be in the moment and be having a good time with strangers that you have similar interests with. It’s really special.”

If you’re on your own navigating your community, it can be hard to listen to your gut, to discern who’s a real friendship or collaborator. But because Borscht is so focused on this protection of their creators, it’s easy to see just how detrimental shady relationships can be and how beneficial being comfortable is. Trust is key — find an atmosphere that allows you to do so which, in turn, fosters honesty in both your creative and emotional journey as a person and artist.

  1. Don’t bring your business card

I didn’t get one business card at Borsht. I got phone numbers — yes, you read that right. People actually still give out personal phone numbers, not just Instagram follows or work emails. I got more phone numbers at Borscht than all other film festivals combined. Business cards aren’t personal. They get lost or end up crumpled in a pair of jeans you finally washed. There’s also nothing brave about a business card; they’re low risk. Even though they may contain your office number and email, you’re subconsciously riding on the assumption that someone will lose it. If you really want to keep in touch, put your number in their phone with your first and last name and description. I probably used “filmmaker with bangs from Borscht” or something. You can always text them and figure out emails later. What was even more miraculous is that people actually followed up. I would even get a, “Hey, we’re doing a night swim if you wanna join,” or, “Don’t forget to send me your script.” One I loved from a new pal (you know who you are and yes I admit this was a Facebook message before we exchanged numbers later), “Where is everyone? I’ve lost the pack.” A pack — that’s what Borscht felt like. People who weren’t there to sling biz cards at hot industry folk. They were there to escape, have some fun and see some great art. The lines between collaborator and friend were blurred — it wasn’t mutually exclusive.

Should we ever use business cards again? Be bolder.

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